Join Date: Aug 2004
Local Time: 12:38 AM
Former Islamist Is Voted in as President of Turkey
By SABRINA TAVERNISE and SEBNEM ARSU
New York Times, August 28, 2007
A former Islamist was elected president of Turkey today, breaking an 84-year grip on the office by the country’s secular establishment and ushering a new Islamic middle class from Turkey’s heartland into the center of political life in the staunchly secular state.
Lawmakers gave Abdullah Gul, a 56-year-old economist, 339 votes, far more than the simple majority required for election in the 550-member parliament, which chooses the country’s president. Two other candidates received a total of 83 votes.
The party representing the secular establishment boycotted the voting.
The election of Mr. Gul today ended four months of political standoff that began when the secular establishment and the Turkish military, which were virulently opposed to his candidacy, blocked it from taking place in May, forcing a national parliamentary election last month. But Mr. Gul’s party, Justice and Development, refused to back down, and his success today marks a rare occasion in recent Turkish history in which a political party prevailed against the wishes of the country’s powerful military. There was no immediate statement from the military, which has ousted four elected governments since 1960. But its unspoken reaction was frosty: None of Turkey’s military commanders attended Mr. Gul’s appointment ceremony, a highly unusual departure from protocol, considering that he is now their commander-in-chief.
“This is definitely a day when we are turning a page, an important page, in the political history of the country,” said Soli Ozel, a professor of international relations at Bilgi University in Istanbul. “The boundaries have been expanded in favor of civilian democracy.”
The appointment upsets the power hierarchy in Turkey, a secular democracy whose citizens are nearly all Muslims, by opening up the presidency — an elite secular post created and first held by the founder of modern Turkey, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk — to a new class of reform-minded leaders from Turkey’s provinces, who for decades were dismissed by the elite as backward. As recently as ten years ago, the nomination of Mr. Gul, or anyone like him, would have been regarded as unthinkable by the elite and the military, who claimed to defend Ataturk’s legacy by keeping the merchant class that Mr. Gul belongs to, along with farmers and others from the countryside, far removed from power in the capital. Tuesday’s vote changes that.
Ali Murat Yel, chairman of the sociology department at Fatih University in Istanbul, said the selection of Mr. Gul is comparable in significance to an African-American being elected president in the United States. “It’s a very important turning point,” said Mr. Yel. “Those people who are the peasants and farmers and petty bourgeoisie always had republican values imposed on them. Now they are rising against it. They are saying, ‘Hey, we are here, and we want our own way.’ ”
Though Turkey’s secular establishment has taken pains to portray Mr. Gul and his close ally, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Turkey’s prime minister, as inseparable from their radical Islamic pasts, their supporters argue that their views have changed substantially since the early 1990’s, when they were members of the overtly Islamic Welfare Party. “They left their radicalism aside and move into center,” Mr. Yel said. “They can sit at the same table as some people who drink alcohol, and they drink their coke, and they would be able to talk to them. They have come to terms with the reality of this country.”
Most Turks strongly oppose the idea of a religiously oriented government, and the overwhelming majority of Mr. Gul’s constituency voted for his party because it has done well running the country, not because its leaders are seen as pious men. Their policies over the past four years in power have reflected a careful respect for secular principles, many say. “A.K. is not, I repeat not, an Islamist party,” said Baskin Oran, a political science professor who ran for parliament in last month’s election, referring to the party of Mr. Gul.
In his acceptance speech in parliament today, Mr. Gul emphasized his commitment to Turkey’s secular values. He renewed his pledge to push for Turkey’s membership in the European Union, an effort that he has led tirelessly in his four years as foreign minister. “Secularism is one of the basic principles of our Republic,” he said, wearing a dark suit and a red tie. “My door will be open to everyone." Still, he will have to work to persuade skeptical Turks who live in the country’s western cities. “He has on his shoulders a very heavy burden — an Islamist past,” Mr. Oran said. “He has to be twice as careful as a secular statesman..”
The election of Mr. Gul reopens the debate over where Islam fits in the building of an equitable society, a question that is also of central interest to western democracies now. “We are in uncharted waters,” Mr. Ozel said. “We don’t know how they will run the country. This is not a party that has articulated its world view very clearly.”
The American ambassador, Ross Wilson, welcomed Mr. Gul’s appointment. “Once again, Turkey’s commitment to democratic institutions and the rule of law has proven durable and strong,” he wrote today in a statement.
Another apparent effect of the election has been to weaken the military’s hold over politics, Turkish experts said. On Monday, Yasar Buyukanit, the chief of staff, said in a statement on the military’s website that “centers of evil,” were working to erode secularism in Turkey. But the statement seemed tone-deaf and did not have the resonance of an earlier statement in April. “Quite frankly, unless the world goes totally upside down, I don’t see how they could find a context in which they could legitimately intervene,” Mr. Ozel said.